After 500, Albert Pujols pauses to thank those who helped him reach milestone

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After 500, Albert Pujols pauses to thank those who helped him reach milestone
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ANAHEIM, Calif. – After the Los Angeles Angels had arrived from New York and before they'd host the Cleveland Indians, two Angel Stadium employees went to work on the big sign in right-center field, the one that said, "PUJOLS 496." For a few minutes it read, "PUJOLS 596," then "PUJOLS 591," and finally "PUJOLS 501." In the clubhouse, Albert Pujols slowly, lovingly even, passed a white rag over the barrels of five bats, bringing each to a slick black shine.

He'd reached 500 home runs nearly a week before in Washington, then popped another at Yankee Stadium. He is sturdy over his legs again, settled into them, and so April has brought nine home runs and 22 RBI. These kinds of months, stacked for more than 13 years, are what brought 500 so soon, and also why Pujols seems so eager to move beyond the fuss. There are more months to come, months bigger in scale and permanence, he believes, so when it was time for him to celebrate 500 with his teammates in the postgame clubhouse, Pujols told them, "Thank you. I will never forget that moment. What I want is for all of us to come together again, but to raise the championship trophy. That will be sweeter, when we do this with champagne."

Something like 18,000 men have worn major-league uniforms, and exactly 25 others have hit as many home runs. It blows Pujols away, how the many hitters among the 18,000 have stood where he has, how they all took their shots, and how only a few possessed the power, ability and good fortune to count 500 home runs.

His 25-year-old teammate, Garrett Richards, asked him, "Does it seem like yesterday since your first?"

And Pujols grinned. "No, man," he said. "It seems like a long time ago."

In the end, he is uncomfortable with the conversation. Uncomfortable beyond brief recognition of the roundness of 500, how it speaks to 13-plus years reasonably spent, the minute-by-minute of 13-plus baseball seasons. He'd prefer to count it all up at the end, when there is no ballgame tomorrow, and when the bats won't need shining anymore.

That does not mean, however, a life without numbers. Like 5. On a shelf in his locker, five tiny silver squares frame five tiny faces, those of his children. Like 21. The chromosome, when tripled up, that presents itself as Down syndrome. Like 17. In years, the length of his marriage to his beloved Deidre, who, he said, "Good and bad, she's the one who has my back." Like 2. As in World Series championships, those with the St. Louis Cardinals.

And, sure, like 500.

The number of people, perhaps, who helped him along the way, who showed him kindness, who challenged him, who came before him and came after him and stood beside him. Count those 500 first, he said.

Like Walt Jocketty, who gave him a place to play, and last week sent a kind text message. Like Tony La Russa, who put him in the lineup, and called to tell him how proud he was of him, and has been, Pujols said, "like a father to me." Like Placido Polanco, who gave Deidre and him a place to live those years ago, when Deidre was three months' pregnant. Like Lou Brock, who coached him in the art of cutting the bases harder. And Bob Gibson, who told him what pitchers were thinking. And Stan Musial, and Red Schoendienst, and Jack Buck, who taught him the game, and the game within the game, and the game outside the game. Like Darryl Kile, who mentored him in the dugout before every game, as did Edgar Renteria and Mark McGwire and Matt Morris and Mike Matheny. And now there are real Angels in his life, and they surrounded him at a home plate 3,000 miles from here, and he was first off the field because he could feel the emotion rising in him, and there was a game to play, a game to win.

"Trust me," Pujols said, "it could be more than 500. I appreciate them. They helped me in my career and even more in my life."

So, he rounded the bases going on a week ago, thinking about 500 in every way, about all those men who'd shared in those strides, and about the 499 trips sort of like this one.

"And I was just praising the Lord," Pujols said. "Saying thank you for giving me the opportunity."

Yes, it's a numbers game. And it's still OK to keep your own score, and to count it up when you're ready, and to decide then who wins.

"What's helped me in my career, I haven't gotten caught up in trying to break records or reach big numbers," he said. "I want to win championships. At the end, that's the legacy I want to leave. One day, I'm going to walk out of this game. What's going to go through my mind is, 'Did I make a difference when I played the game?' That's how I want to leave my footprint in the game. Not as a great player, but as a person."

The 500 homers?

"It's not that I don't care," he said. "I do care. But I'm still active. I'm still here. I'm still playing the game. I don't want that to take away from the things I care about the most."

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